See below for answers to some of our most frequently asked questions about the volunteer program.
The program’s staff of veterans law specialists screen the appeals of individuals who file pro se at the Court. Appeals that appear to have merit are referred to trained volunteer attorneys (if the appellant meets income eligibility guidelines).
While screening is taking place, volunteer attorneys are trained in veterans law by attending a day-long training seminar. (In some cases, training may be provided via DVD if an attorney is unable to attend in person and if the Program does not have sufficient inperson trained attorneys.)
After being trained and accepting a screened case, the volunteer receives a screening memorandum that addresses the facts and legal issues in the appeal. Each participating attorney also receives the latest version of the Veterans Benefit Manual (usually 2 bound volumes and a CD-ROM), a comprehensive guide to litigating veterans’ benefits claims. The volunteer is also assigned a mentor who specializes in this area of the law.
First, the program provides opportunities to obtain appellate litigation experience while performing pro bono service. Many cases involve brief writing and some present the opportunity for oral argument.
Second, since some cases may present issues of first impression, representation may provide an opportunity to make new law.
Third, the program provides significant training and support to ensure that your time is used effectively: cases are prescreened for merit in advance of assignment and volunteer attorneys are quickly oriented to the case with a memorandum describing the facts and legal issues.
For each training seminar that is conducted (typically 5 training seminars per year) the Program seeks and receives CLE credit with at least one state bar (usually the state where the training occurs). If you seek CLE credit in a state for which the training seminar is currently CLE-approved, you need only submit to the state bar the form that is provided to you by the Program.
However, if you seek CLE credit in a state where our training seminar does not have current CLE approval, you must initiate the CLE process individually with the CLE administrator of the state. No state has ever denied the Program’s training seminar CLE approval. In the past, we have received CLE approval in Virginia, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Utah, New York, Texas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Georgia, Michigan, Delaware, Minnesota, and other states. Typically the Program is approved for between 6.5 – 8.0 CLE credits, depending on the state.
VA rules concerning accreditation to represent VA claimants before the VA are at 38 C.F.R. § 14.629. VA does not certify CLE courses itself, but it does attempt to monitor the courses that agents and attorneys take to ensure that they cover the required topics.
In order to be accredited by the VA, you must file an application with the VA’s General Counsel and meet certain requirements that are not discussed in this FAQ. You can find all necessary information about VA accreditation, including the application for accreditation, at http://www.va.gov/ogc/accreditation.asp. Briefly, during the first year after initial VA accreditation, three hours of CLE (approved by any state) must be completed and must cover certain topics in veterans law. The Program’s day-long training is approved for CLE credit by at least one state and covers the required topics in veterans law. (However, because under VA rules the initial CLE requirement must be completed during the one-year period after accreditation, a volunteer attorney must apply for and receive VA accreditation prior to attending our training in order to have our training fulfill the initial CLE requirement.) In order to maintain VA accreditation, every two years thereafter an additional three hours of CLE (approved by any state) covering any veterans benefits law and procedures topic(s) is required. Our day-long training appears to meet the requirements to maintain VA accreditation.
Veterans benefits have been provided since the American Revolution. In 1862 Congress imposed a five-dollar limit, later increased to ten dollars, on what an attorney could charge a veteran to represent the veteran on a claim for veterans benefits. This fee limitation statue was not intended at the time to bar attorneys from veterans law. Ten dollars was actually a reasonable fee for an attorney following the Civil War because the value of the dollar was much higher back then and because the veterans benefits process was a simple one.
With the passage of time and inflation, the ten-dollar fee limit became an economic bar to the practice of veterans benefits law. A system developed in which few attorneys practiced and non-attorneys from the veterans service organizations provided free representation to over 90 percent of the VA claimants.
The 1988 Veterans Judicial Review Act created a new Article I court for veterans claims and amended the attorney fee limitation to a limited degree. Subsequently, effective June 2007, attorneys were able to charge a reasonable fee after a VA regional office denied a claim and an initial appeal document (called the Notice of Disagreement) was filed.
These are some of the reasons that many veterans remain unrepresented at the time they file their appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
If you are an attorney interested in volunteering for the Program, contact Director of Outreach & Education, Courtney Smith, at (202) 733-3323 or at Courtney.Smith@vetsprobono.org or Pro Bono Coordinator Peter Gregory at (202) 733-3321 or at Peter.Gregory@vetsprobono.org.
If you are a veteran or family member interested in receiving assistance from the Program, please contact Client Services at (202) 628-8164 or toll-free at (888) 838-7727.